It seems that every year around Oscar season, the studios release a plethora of excellent films based on true stories, and soon after their release several of these films inevitably become embroiled in factual controversy. They take a lot of flak, gain a lot of free publicity, and then ironically go on to win an Oscar or two. Last year the highest profile cases were Argo (which won Best Picture) and Lincoln (which won Daniel Day-Lewis his third lead actor Oscar). This year, that Oscar-caliber, true-story film may be Paul Greengrass’ phenomenally thrilling Captain Phillips.
Greengrass, who is best known for directing The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, brings to this true story about the Maersk Alabama, a cargo ship that is boarded and hijacked by Somali Pirates, his unique visual style and talent for creating tense, intimate moments. The film focuses on the ship’s eponymous captain, played by a fiercely compelling Tom Hanks, in what surely is one of his most demanding roles since Castaway.
The plot is pretty basic stuff: the cargo ship is too close to the Somali border, there have been recent reports of pirate activity, and then (surprise!) the ship gets attacked. Captain Phillips does his best to hide the crew and protect them from the invaders who are led by a ruthless, albeit conflicted, Somali man. The plot is not what makes this film compelling: anyone with access to the Internet has the ability to go look up what happens to Captain Phillips and the Maersk Alabama crew. No, what turns this into an irresistible film are the remarkably effective (and affecting) performances, and the way Greengrass masterfully builds tension from scene to scene. He starts us on the edge of our seats and never lets us sit back and relax.
From the very beginning, Greengrass uses a handheld shaky camera and tight zooms to create a sense of anxiety and emphasize important dramatic elements. One of the first instances of this visual style occurs when we are introduced to the film’s complicated antagonist, played by a frighteningly thin Barkhad Abdi, who has never before acted on film. Even though only a few brief scenes focus solely on Abdi’s character, Greengrass does a fantastic job creating at least some empathy for this man who lives in a brutal society where piracy is the only acceptable means of survival. By establishing this small empathetic link, Greengrass and Abdi allow the pirate to become more than just a simple villain. Instead he emerges as a fully realized human being, a rarity among antagonists in today’s Hollywood blockbuster.
For a first time actor Abdi reveals his character’s complexities and fears with remarkable nuance. His wide eyes and shifty demeanor suggest that the pirate is not entirely comfortable with the task to which he has committed, but he is absolutely unwilling to back down precisely because of that commitment. Playing against the prolific Tom Hanks, Abdi rises to the challenge of performing against one of cinema’s most seasoned and talented actors. Greengrass uses tight framing and liberal close-ups in order to develop intimate settings that allow the two actors to create a powerful dynamic that electrifies the screen.
Hanks, too, is in rare form. While much of the criticism against the film has been leveled against its purportedly inaccurate portrayal of Phillips’ personality, Hanks delivers such a riveting performance that I am completely willing to overlook any lapses in realism. Regardless of whether or not the movie character fits the real man, Captain Phillips showcases some of Hanks’s best work, which is undoubtedly one of the strongest portrayals of the year. Hanks plays Phillips as a regular guy who tries his best to be brave and altruistic in the face of pure human terror. The film affords him many opportunities to delve into the nature of human fear, and the final scene left me absolutely breathless. If nothing else (and there is plenty else), Hanks’s acting in that last scene is so sensational that it almost justifies seeing the entire rest of the film.
Now, as much as I loved this film, it is not perfect. There are times when it drags (clocking in at 2 ½ hours even though it could easily have been 2), and the inaccurate depiction of Captain Phillips’ character remains a mark against the overall product. The overall message is also fairly simplistic: do the morally correct thing and the good guys will win, the bad guys will lose. But even with these marks against it, the film still deserves attention. With impeccable performances, tight direction, and a truly gripping narrative, Captain Phillips is definitely one boat you don’t want to miss.
Zach Saldacher is a senior in the English Department.